In this poetic work a man stands on high ground surveying the view of the emerging day expanding before him. His pose, in which his hands are clasped to his chest and his face in profile, has a distinctly religious aura. The strange formation of the sun in the centre of the light filled sky suggests an apparition. Its dynamic movement through the firmament contrasts with the static forms of the water and trees below. The reflected light transforms the man’s coat into a garment of deep yellows and reds, while his head remains a ghostly white. He is an ethereal presence, waiting for sunrise to take hold and make him solid once more. Behind the figure touches of sunshine enliven a thick hedge of shrubbery with flecks of bright blue, yellow and red, evocative of the invigorating power of daylight.
Dawn is a key theme in Yeats’s later work. It offers the idea of hope and renewal, in which the heat and light of the rising sun overcomes the cold and darkness of night and transforms the landscape into a colourful, vibrant cosmos. The treatment of the theme can be compared to several other works by Yeats of the mid 1940s such as Rockhill, Dawn, (1944, Private Collection) and Morning Glory (1945, Private Collection) and most notably The Dawn (1946, Private Collection), in which a weary old man, possibly Yeats himself, sits in a West of Ireland landscape, with the sea and the sky behind him.
As can be gleaned from his hat and clothing and from similar figures in many of Yeats’s other works of this period, the figure in Early Sunshine is a homeless wanderer. This traveller or outsider is much more in tune with the cycle of day and night than his fellow citizens and, as can be understood from a perusal of Yeats’s novels and paintings, has chosen to live his days in harmony with the natural world. This rejection of conventional life in Yeats’s work was recognised and admired by several commentators including the writer and friend Ernie O’Malley and later by the artist and critic Brian O’Doherty.
Dr Róisín Kennedy
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